Go west, young man

Laebon Homes Gord Bontje honoured with BILD Central Alberta’s first-ever Icon award

At 17 years of age and just hanging out at the family farm not far from London, Ontario, Gord Bontje was looking for something that grabbed him, a new direction for his future.

London, with a population of just over 200,000 in the 1970s, was and still is a university town with an economy also anchored by the insurance industry and medical research — but at that time in his young life, none of this appealed to him as a career.

“I was unsettled, not ready to tackle post-secondary — so I headed west. My thought was to return to London in a year and go back to school,” Bontje, co-founder of Red Deer-based Laebon Homes recalls while on vacation recently in Palm Springs.

It’s doubtful that New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley’s urging — “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” — struck a chord with Bontje back then, but go west he did and grow he did, in Red Deer.

Now, some 42 years later Bontje, who founded the home-building firm with his high school pal Peter Lacey (who left Laebon in 1982), has deep personal and professional roots in this central Alberta city.

To date, the company has built more than 4,000 homes throughout the central part of the province and created several housing developments that carry the Laebon name. Growing as a company, seeing the success that has come with the hard work, brings with it the desire to give back to the community.

“I believe that as a business becomes successful, it has an obligation to contribute both its money and time to the greater community,” says Bontje. “The skills that are used to manage a business are skills that must be used to advance a community.”

He got deeply involved in the workings of the housing industry in the 1980s because there was “an expectation that every participant in the industry carry part of the load.”

In addition to serving in various capacities within building industry, including a one-year term as president of the Central Alberta Home Builders Association (now called BILD – Central Alberta), Bontje has spent countless hours serving the community and region.

Listed among his volunteer postings are: trustee and board chair of the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division, board member for Westerner Park, and board member for the Alberta Health Services.

“It bears repeating that people who give of themselves in volunteer roles get much more than they give,” he adds.

Now the time for his chosen industry to thank Bontje for all his contributions to the growth and betterment of the community.

On May 26, Bontje was presented with the inaugural Icon Award by BILD-Central Alberta, a way of thanking him for all he has done. The award was presented by his son, Steve, who is managing partner of Laebon’s development company.

“We were trying to find ways to recognize individuals who have contributed their time and dedication to our industry for over 20 years,” says Denie Olmstead, chief executive officer of BILD – Central Alberta. “We had a number of strong candidates to consider, but for the first-ever Icon we knew without question that it should go to Gord Bontje.”

While he has already started passing some of the business responsibilities to the next Bontje generation, retirement is something, he says, is still a ways down the road. He continues to manage the company’s rental portfolio and rental development division.

His other son, Adam, owns a heavy construction company and does excavation work and underground utility installations for Laebon and other regional companies.

“I appreciate the recognition of a long and fun career that the Icon Award represents, and it’s great to see my work has been noticed. I feel a little young for this recognition since I don’t intend to retire any time soon,” he said following the award presentation.

That long and fun career in housing that he talks about didn’t happen without some good luck, good friends, and good business connections.

Arriving in Red Deer in 1975, Bontje’s plan was to work in the oilpatch, but was offered a job by a home builder in Red Deer.

Eventually he hooked up with school pal Lacey who had left London about the same time as Bontje but found work in the oil industry and managed to put aside some money. And with the help of a couple of local bankers, they built their first two homes.

“Pete is a bright guy who sees opportunity and I had construction skills, so we formed our company — the “La” from his name and the “bon” from mine,” says Bontje.

But this is Alberta we’re talking about, so from a business perspective it wasn’t all cake and ice cream economically. There is the boom-bust scenario that raises its ugly head every so often.
Describing the crash of the 1980s as the “worst” one, Bontje says there is no “magic formula” survival formula.

“You simply get right back to basics, cut costs to the bone, and hang on for dear life. I don’t think I had a full night’s sleep for the first part of the ‘80s,” he says.

But despite the ups and downs, Bontje remains passionate about his chosen industry the Red Deer area.

“Our passions get us out of bed in the morning and help us to achieve greatness,” he says in his Founding Partner’s Message.

By: Marty Hope
Central Alberta Homes & Lifestyles Magazine - Summer 2018